When President Barack Obama, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and rapper Snoop Dogg are in the house, this must be the Kennedy Center Honors, the annual salute to artists who have made extraordinary contributions to American culture.
“Despite all their success, all their fame, they’ve remained true to themselves -- and inspired the rest of us to do the same,” said the president last night in the East Room of the White House, where he welcomed the honorees for the event’s 36th year: Billy Joel, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine and Martina Arroyo.
At the Kennedy Center later, the honorees sat in the presidential box with the first couple and Secretary of State John Kerry and watched a three-hour program of fans and fellow artists paying tribute to their work.
Harry Belafonte, Buddy Guy, and Steve Winwood performed for the first honoree of the night, Mexican-born guitarist Santana.
“You’ve got to do something about Mexican immigration,” joked Belafonte. “Every day you’ve got people like Santana taking jobs.”
“He gave voice to a Latino community that had too often been invisible to too many Americans,” the president said of Santana.
“I’m here for the diva,” said Sotomayor, who introduced a video about opera soprano Arroyo.
Young performers sang arias from Verdi’s “Aida,” her most famous role.
“In that breakout role she won fans around the world, beloved for her tremendous voice and unparalleled grace,” Obama said of her.
Jazz pianist Hancock drew an unlikely pair of fans: Fox News commentator O’Reilly and rapper Dogg. “He’s always humble and serene,” O’Reilly said of Hancock. “I need that kind of role model.”
“Thank you for creating hip hop,” said Dogg, who got a crowd including Renee Fleming and Mikhail Baryshnikov waving and rapping with him.
“Michelle and I love this man,” the president said of Hancock. “Not just because he’s from Chicago. Not just because he and I had the same hairdo in the 1970s.”
Actress Glenn Close said that fellow thespian MacLaine, known for her belief in reincarnation, had “a life too big for one lifetime.”
MacLaine was introduced by her friend Kathy Bates, who said they had made four films together. “Acting is as necessary to you as breathing,” Bates said of the Academy Award winning actress, who got her start as a dancer on Broadway.
“She’s still spitting fire with the same old spunk,” the president said of MacLaine, 79.
Garth Brooks, Don Henley, Tony Bennett, and Rufus Wainwright ended the program with their tribute to Joel. Wainwright sang his hits “New York State of Mind” and “Piano Man.”
“The hardworking folks he’s met and the music that he’s heard across our nation come through in every note and every lyric that he’s written,” the president said of Joel’s middle class appeal.
During the show’s intermission, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he was there to support Joel and Arroyo. “They’re both good New Yorkers.”
Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said he’d always been a Joel fan, especially because his classic “Only the Good Die Young” includes the lyric “come out Virginia.”
He was joined by Senate colleagues Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, and Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat.
Michael Kaiser announced he will be stepping down as president of the Kennedy Center after a 13-year run. He courted criticism when a conversation in which he cursed at Felix Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, became public. The inclusion of two Hispanic honorees this year was thought to be a direct result of that controversy.
Others spotted at the show and dinner include Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan, White House press secretary Jay Carney and White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard.